Homeschooling with Little Ones: What about Academics?

The Benefits of Self-Directed Learning

You will, by default, still have to spend a lot of time with your kindergarteners who are learning to read and your first graders who still are not fluent readers. But once your children are able to read with good comprehension, you can largely work yourself out of a job when it comes to teaching, if you so desire. Granted, you will have to oversee things, introduce new topics, bridge gaps in learning, and open up some time for discussion of things that the children are learning. But, your time becomes a lot more flexible when the children know that they are expected to attend to certain subjects or assignments on their own.

To implement self-teaching methods, you may refer to a scope and sequence or develop learning objectives from appropriate resources, then allow your child some independence in how those goals are met (in a true “independent study” approach). You can purchase textbooks or workbooks from various sources for different subject areas, and expect assignments to be completed from those. Alternatively, you may look to self-learning curricula such as the Robinson Curriculum or Accelerated Achievement (A2). There are also many Internet, DVD, or video lessons that children can do independently. My only caution would be to limit the amount of hours your child is engaged in “passive learning” processes such as these. However, media alternatives can be helpful in reducing your workload as teacher or in teaching subjects with which you may not feel particularly comfortable. No matter what method you choose, remember that it is good for children to learn how to learn: by reading, writing, asking questions, experimenting, using available resources, and studying different topics independently.

During my oldest son’s third grade year, we had a new baby in September. I had already bought a rather “teacher-led” curriculum for math that year, and I realized that I would not have the time I needed to go through the teacher’s manual and prepare the lessons for each day. Because my son was a good reader and well able to understand and follow complex directions, I gave him instructions: on the first day of the week for math, he was to go through the teacher’s manual and self-teach the lesson, such that he could teach me when he was done. The second day, he completed any accompanying student assignments. And so we alternated teaching and book work throughout the week, with me clarifying as necessary when he presented the lesson content to me.

Granted, this approach will not work for every child; it requires a certain personality and level of maturity—but it happened to be an excellent solution for using our existing curriculum and increasing the level of independent learning. Since teaching demands a higher level of mastery, it also ensured that my son really understood the material. Because he alternated teaching and bookwork, we worked our way through the curriculum more slowly, but I often excused him from bookwork because I could see that through teaching, he had enough of an understanding that he didn’t need the reinforcement of additional exercises. So he would often work on the teaching portions two days in a row and keep up his progress that way.

So think outside the box when it comes to academics and do what you can to have children accomplish at least some of their work independently. Your role can, and probably should, be more like that of a tutor for your older children—introducing new concepts, answering questions, correcting work, and evaluating the learning that has taken place.

If you are emphasizing a self-learning lifestyle, your children should be encouraged to manage their time and their different school and home responsibilities. Experiment with different planners and make sure each child has one. Outline their learning goals or itemize the assignments that they are expected to complete each day or each week.

After they have some practice with self-learning, you can give your children some freedom in regard to “when” their school work gets completed. Very often, my older children will do school work after the younger children go to bed; they have an extra hour before their “lights-out” time. Or, they will go outside for a morning recess with the little ones and then do their work during the afternoon nap time. At other times, they will do two days’ worth of math and language arts in one day so that they can have more free time the next day to do a personal project. It is a standing rule, however, that they have a daily review with me to show me what progress they have made and what their overall plans are for completing the remainder of their assignments for the week. If they seem to be getting behind I will step in and manage their time a bit more, until they acquire the necessary self-discipline in their studies.

It is important to have concrete goals and well-defined expectations, such as the number of pages or chapters to be read, the things you will be checking as you go through each assignment, the frequency of each assignment, and about how long each assignment should take. If this is all new to both you and your child, expect to have to invest some time and remain patient. Resist the impulse to nag your child to get to work. I have found the most success by simply encouraging my older children (on a constant basis) to exhibit Christlike character—and this extends to how they perceive, talk about, and engage in their academic learning.

I always start with small, easily completed assignments so that they can grow in confidence and stay excited about managing their own school work. Once they acclimate to being self-starters, you are well on your way to a more enjoyable and productive homeschool.

It is helpful to remind the children that although they have a certain number of assignments each day, they are free to take a break between assignments. I find that I have to manage these breaks a bit so that we stay on track time-wise. I try to do this gently, though, and make sure that they do have time to “stop and smell the roses.” Children of any age are also motivated by the reward of some extended free time when their school work is completed. Likewise, consequences for work that remains undone (such as withdrawal of specific privileges) should be enforced.


Other Approaches that May Work


Although self-directed learning works very well for our family (and for most other large families that I know of), you may be reluctant to try it or may give up too quickly if you experience resistance from your children. On the other hand, you may truly enjoy being more involved in the educational process and want to embrace a different style of education in your home. Even while homeschooling with multiple young children, it is still possible to do many different kinds of hands-on learning.

Honestly, I have not done much study in regards to the different “styles” of education. We actually embrace a more eclectic approach of just choosing what works best for us. Although we do emphasize self-learning, I have found that we naturally incorporate elements of many other homeschooling methods. This helps to optimize our integration of academics into everyday family life.

Unit Studies. A “unit study” approach is actually an ideal way to integrate multiple subject areas—and many ages of children. You just may have to be more flexible about when this happens (for example, not while you are nursing the baby!). You may also have to encourage the children to do more of the set up and clean up associated with different projects, or limit the types of activities that are done so that you do not get over-involved. Likewise, you may have to curtail your outings (library or field trips) when you are integrating a new baby, or revolve trips around nap schedules and such. Even with these limitations, you can still research different topics with the books you have at home or via the Internet and do some simple hands-on activities.

Personally, I find it financially limiting to purchase many different curriculum materials, including these unit studies. I also sometimes find formal unit studies difficult to do, since we have a disproportionate number of little ones. It is a larger investment of time for me, in terms of doing research, gathering supplies, and so on. Also, the setup and cleanup can be exhausting (with many little ones underfoot, often making more of a mess). Trying more advanced projects is likewise a challenge, as these are usually attractive to the little ones but they really can’t reasonably participate in them. Once they see what “everyone else” is doing, though, they can be difficult to distract! These may not be concerns, however, for those who have a different combination or age range of children.

In fact, if you have mostly older children who are better able to guide their own learning and do even the more involved activities independently, they can follow along with a unit study type of plan on their own instead of using traditional textbooks for self-learning. Your involvement will likely be minimal and they will probably enjoy the educational process a bit more with this method.

Although I hesitate to use a formalized unit study curriculum, I always look for “integration opportunities” on a daily basis. This makes our school time both more engaging and more productive. We are able to optimize our time when days get busy, and very often the whole family to participate in the daily activities in an age-appropriate way.

Normally I will just use our Social Studies or Science textbooks as a springboard for a topic; add in some related copy work; have the children write a story or essay; or practice using research tools like the dictionary or thesaurus in a way that relates to the subject. It is sometimes a challenge to bring in math, so unless the integration is intuitive, the children will do their textbook or workbook lessons later in the day.

Here are a couple of simple examples of how this might “look” in our homeschool household: after assembling a model of the human body, the children will color a diagram of the body’s organs and look up some key terms in the dictionary or encyclopedia. They might do some copy work of related Bible verses, like Proverbs 139:15-17 or Proverbs 4:20-23. We might even make up a photo essay of, for example, eyes or smiles using our digital camera. And it is fun to experiment with art by doing finger painting (or foot painting!).

If we are reading about Colonial America, we might color a map of the original 13 colonies and compare it with a modern map of the United States. Or, make some berry ink and try doing copy work assignments with the ink and a quill pen (feather). We might try staining some paper with a wash of tea and making our own hornbooks. Another activity might be to experiment with putting shapes together to make a pattern for a Colonial quilt (that’s math!).

Charlotte Mason. There are elements of the Charlotte Mason approach that make a lot of sense in a well-integrated homeschool. These include reading aloud and oral re-telling or narration, nature walks and art journals.

In line with the Charlotte Mason philosophy, I highly recommend family read-alouds that emphasize subject-specific content. Books Children Love: A Guide to the Best Children’s Literature by Elizabeth Wilson is an essential guide that can help you choose books to meet your educational objectives. Select books that cover the topics of your interest and make a trip to your local library to find them.

You can see that the style of home education will be whatever fits you and your family best, not only in the season of life when you have preschoolers, but at every other point in your homeschooling journey as well. There is no right or wrong way to do it, but only what is best for you. You may mix and match from many different approaches or do one thing for a while and then try a different method.

(Excerpted from The Growing Homeschool)


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